Canucks expect playoff return
A little more than one month after taking over as general manager, Jim Benning hired coach Willie Desjardins and four days later began retooling an aging roster that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six seasons. By mid-July, the Canucks had four new forward lines, at least one new defense pairing, and a new No. 1 goaltender.
Benning granted center Ryan Kesler's request with a trade to the Anaheim Ducks at the 2014 NHL Draft, avoiding the two-year soap opera that accompanied a similar move for goaltender Roberto Luongo. For Kesler, the Canucks acquired a potential second-line replacement center (Nick Bonino), a depth defenseman (Luca Sbisa), and a second first-round pick (used to select center Jared McCann).
Benning convinced hometown defenseman Jason Garrison to waive his no-trade clause and sent his $4.6-million salary-cap charge to the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 50th pick in the draft, which was used to acquire promising young forward Linden Vey from the Los Angeles Kings.
Benning added wing Derek Dorsett in trade for the 85th pick in the draft, and kept rolling when free agency opened a week later, signing veteran goaltender Ryan Miller in the opening hours and adding goal-scoring wing Radim Vrbata two days later.
Not all of Benning's moves were universally applauded, especially in goal, but he made them decisively, dismissing questions about rebuilding and instead talking openly about getting back to the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. It's a confidence based largely on improved depth.
"Our goal was to add depth so we weren't relying on the same players," Benning said. "We wanted to supplement our core players so all the pressure is not going to be on them, both minutes-wise plus the ability to produce."
The Canucks lacked that depth last season, a problem exacerbated by coach John Tortorella's insistence on riding his top players. Vancouver was in a playoff position almost three-quarters of the way through the season, but as the minutes and injuries piled up, the Canucks crashed to 25th in the NHL.
"Right off the hop we needed depth," Benning said. "Teams I previously worked for were four-line teams. The third and fourth lines were important to their success, so that is a different philosophy maybe than what happened last year. But you can say you want to play four lines, but your third and fourth lines have to be able to contribute. We tried to add players to those third and fourth lines."
The Canucks will still be a team that relies heavily on Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin to score at 5-on-5 and especially on a power play that has slipped steadily from the top of the NHL in 2010-11 to 26th last season.
The Sedins are coming off their worst offensive season in a decade, in part due to decreased offensive opportunities after Tortorella added penalty-killing duties and deployed them more often in the defensive zone of a system that required forwards to stay deeper in it, limiting transition. Even if it's hard to envision Daniel and Henrik, who turn 34 in September, returning to their Art Ross Trophy output of three and four years ago, it's easier to see how a return to a more possession-focused system under Desjardins should help them bounce back.
"We just finished three days of coaches meetings and listening to the types of systems our coaches want to implement; we're going to play fast," Benning said. "When Vancouver was good, they would go up the ice and come back as five-man units, with everybody contributing into the offense and everybody getting back defensively to try to get the puck again and head the other way."
Benning saw the Canucks at their best in 2011 as an assistant general manager with the Boston Bruins, who defeated Vancouver in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. He said he sees enough depth and talent remaining to get back to that style.
"I believe we have players that like handling the puck, like skating with the puck, like taking the puck to the net," he said. "So more than anything we want to get some players who through injuries or lost confidence or whatever happened last year, and we want to get them back to that style."
As hard as the Canucks plummeted at the end of last season, they ended with respectable possession statistics, finishing 10th in Corsi, which measures shot differential, at 51.3 percent, according to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. But Desjardins, who met with all his new players by phone or in person, including a trip to Sweden, was more impressed with the people he inherited.
"I believe you win with your character, with your leaders, and we are fortunate to have great people and they are really good hockey players as well," said Desjardins, who was hired after winning the Calder Cup with the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League. "We didn't spend a lot of time talking about last year. We want to focus on what is ahead of us and where we are going. Last year isn't important right now. It's done and behind us."
Benning moved the Canucks past it quickly, but only time will tell if it was a one-season blip or the start of a downward trend that could last a lot longer.
CANUCKS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 36-35-11, 83 pts, 5th in Pacific Division, 12th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
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Author: Kevin Woodley | NHL.com Correspondent